No place for Johnny Sexton’s hurt and drive, this is not soccer
Questioning his reaction is to question the impulse that makes him still irreplaceable
Johnny Sexton on his way off the pitch after being replaced in Ireland’s defeat to France. Photograph: Inpho
Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton encourages his team after being replaced in Paris. Photograph: Inpho
At least for the hours and days following, it was conveyed to a rugby world that cares as an unholy transgression, a disagreeable wickedness, an unrighteous veniality and a violation of the shirt and office.
Trumpian in its lack of grace and revelation of character, fall to your knees Johnny Sexton. Accept a damned good social media thrashing the likes of which you’ve never had.
How dare you squint towards the stand like van Helsing spying the flying she-vampires emerging from the castle on the hill. What place is it of yours to start murmuring at the Irish coaching staff like Regan McNeil in the Exorcist in the head turning scene. Prostrate yourself.
Rip off that green crest, tear that shirt off your back. Birch yourself. Distress your flesh. Self mortify. That was no time to painfully twist your mouth. Everyone else though, untwist your knickers.
The sadness, the lament, the tragic unbuckling of a good man was there for all to see. So rapt and saddened were we when it happened. Right on camera, Johnny Sexton replaced and not liking it one bit.
Have you forgotten everything you learned from the captain’s manual on etiquette when hauled ashore 12 minutes from the end of a Test match for . . . well who knows. No emails please on reasons why. Blessed as Ross Byrne is, he was never going to turn that game.
Look Johnny Sexton, sometimes your passion, your commitment, your craving to win, your burning desires, your fire and your hurt when Ireland lose, well we just don’t want them.
What we want is the preservation of the honour code. You may, if you wish, let your lip tremble and quiver. But all this satanic mumbling, this homicidal staring at the almost empty stand, you’ve really got to knock that on the head. People will talk. People have talked.
Son, you need to be re-tooled. Take the match between Ulster and Glasgow this week when referee Nigel Owens called lock Kieran Treadwell over for a confab. He and his Ulster pals had just whooped and bum slapped after the Scottish team had coughed up the ball.
“That’s not acceptable in the game. If someone makes a mistake we just get on with it,” explained Owens. Beautifully Welsh lilting at his school marm best and wooden stakes through all your wee six-county hearts.
“We don’t clap and cheer,” added Owens. “Okay. I’m going to let it go this time. I don’t want to see it happening again. Not in this game.”
Not in this game. Halleluiah. A man with a direct line to the soul of rugby, a sport where you can serve booze to the fans while they are actually watching and they don’t trash the stadium. Imagine, juiced up they don’t even set the plastic seats on fire, or, sing offensive songs at each other except for Ireland’s Call. And here is Johnny Sexton wagging his head like a bloodthirsty, demonic, fallen demigod upsetting the good folk who believe in restraint.
Brian “I don't think it is visually a good thing” O’Driscoll and Keith “he has to lead with the respect that he has for his coach” Wood, both soaring in that stratosphere of revered Irish captains, laid it on Sexton suggesting his behaviour just ain’t officer material. All that caring and passion and that deep drive to win. He’s got to lock it up. Frustration and disappointment. Bottle it.
These things that oddly fascinate when there’s so much more happening.
Rob Kearney in his book “No Hiding” finds himself gliding though the air in the Six Nations. Italy’s Andrea Masi has just clothes-lined him. As he peels his body off the turf checking his concertinaed oesophagus Masi is standing over him shouting. “You like that motherf*cker.”
Kearney saw Michael Cheika’s reign as coach in Leinster as though the entire experience was shot through the unsteady hand held cam of the “Blair Witch Project. ” Fright Mondays with full video review hazing, the selective rants for special players, 19th century human resources. Still, Cheika beat and scared the “Ladyboy” out of Leinster. Kudos.
There are things that should be highlighted in the game and criticised and held to account. There are things that are ugly and unseemly, things that need addressing. And there is virtue signalling.
And rugby is very good at virtue signalling. It is excellent at making it clear that it is not soccer or GAA. It is world class at telling the world that players show total respect for the referee, how 127 kilos of England’s Billy Vunipola will instantly turn spaniel and heel to command at a sharp blast of whistle.
But a captain coming off the pitch and demonstrating complexity, competitive spirit and being plain pissed off, is that an energy that is useless and unnecessary. Criticising Sexton semaphoring that he gives a damn, is that not questioning the impulse that makes him driven and, still, irreplaceable.
Construed as insubordination or disrespectful, it isn’t hard to instead understand it as intensity, a window into Sexton’s own sense of internal calamity as an important match falls away and a profound expression of personal failure.
Rather than kicking the Irish captain, some people see hard currency in the growling, the fierce sentiment and the prickly contrariness. Some prefer vinegar to sugar and a stubborn lack of self doubt or the charisma of a challenging stare.
*In the original version of this article on November 13th a quote from former Irish captain Keith Wood was attributed to former Irish captain Brian O'Driscoll. Following communication with Brian O'Driscoll The Irish Times is happy to make the correction.